KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A Malaysian appeals court on Friday ordered two police officers freed after overturning their murder convictions in the killing of a Mongolian woman who had an affair with the prime minister's friend.
The verdict revived claims of a political conspiracy surrounding the high-profile case that the opposition has repeatedly sought to link to Prime Minister Najib Razak. However, the claims are unlikely to have any immediate impact on the government, which has not been directly implicated in the killing.
The officers were the only suspects found guilty of shooting Altantuya Shaariibuu and blowing up her body with military explosives in 2006. A High Court judge in 2009 sentenced them to be hanged.
A three-judge panel in the Court of Appeals ruled that the High Court had overlooked gaps in the evidence, including whether the officers had access to the explosives, had any intention to kill her and were present at the time of the murder at the site where Shaariibuu's remains were found.
Prosecutors can appeal the verdict one final time in Malaysia's highest court.
The prosecution had contended that the 28-year-old Shaariibuu's murder was ordered by her former lover Abdul Razak Baginda, a prominent defense analyst, after their affair ended.
The High Court in 2008 acquitted Abdul Razak, a married man and a former confidante of Prime Minister Najib, of charges of abetting the murder.
Opposition leaders have repeatedly claimed that Najib must have had a role in approving the killing. The prime minister has denied any links.
"Shock & horror! Altantuya case: initially no motive, now (there are) not even murderers!" Rafizi Ramli, a senior official in the opposition People's Justice Party, wrote on Twitter after Friday's ruling.
Abdul Razak has said Shaariibuu kept pestering him for money and threatened to go public with their affair, prompting him to seek help from the two police officers who worked for an elite unit assigned to VIP security.
The two officers acknowledged picking up Shaariibuu from outside Abdul Razak's house. The prosecution alleged they took her to a jungle clearing and killed her.
Both denied murdering her. Azilah Hadri said he handed Shaariibuu over to his colleague, Sirul Azhar Umar, and never saw her again. During the trial, Sirul insisted he was "just a scapegoat who has to be sacrificed to cover up the ill intentions of those who were not in court."